Cheap, refurbished game systems seem too good to be true
Adhering to an old saying -- "If it's too good to be true, it probably is" -- might have saved money and prevented headaches for hundreds of people who are unhappy with websites claiming to offer irresistibly priced video game systems.
The premise was innocent enough: a factory-refurbished Wii for $19.99, or an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 -- including a one-year warranty and free shipping -- for $34.99. That's less than the price of a game remote.They were offered on several related websites, such as PS3-Bargains.com (pictured above) and RefurbishedWiis.com. The websites' lists of frequently asked questions say the "slightly worn" systems are offered at such a low price — more than $150 less than anywhere else — because the site gets paid by sponsors "for every survey you fill out."
But customers are complaining that although their credit cards were billed, they never received the game consoles, let alone any surveys to complete.
According to analyst Aaron Naternicola of the Internet Crime Complaint Center (a collaboration among the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance), 18 related websites have generated hundreds of complaints about unfulfilled game console orders, and four other websites -- apparently connected to the first group -- generated more than two dozen complaints about software related to the World of Warcraft game that didn't work as promised. (The 22 websites are listed after the jump.) Efforts by The Times to reach the proprietors behind the websites were unsuccessful.
As of Tuesday morning, the IC3 had received 324 complaints from consumers about the game console websites since August 2007, which the IC3 says amounts to about $17,100 in lost money. The magnitude is rare, reaching a level hit by only a dozen or so cases a year, Naternicola said in an e-mail.
"Any time you have double-digit complaints, that's considered more than just noteworthy," said Craig Butterworth, spokesman for the National White Collar Crime Center. "The higher those numbers go up, the more serious it becomes."
The Better Business Bureau also has received a series of complaints claiming "delivery issues." (A spokeswoman said the bureau doesn't disclose the specifics until after cases have been resolved.)
Thanks to Better Business Bureau reports, the IC3 was able to draw connections among ...
... the 22 websites, which are advertised through Google AdWords, from patterns in names, addresses and e-mail handles, Naternicola said.
The IC3 fielded eight complaints last year and 18 more in the first half of this year against sites related to the $24.99 World of Warcraft Gold Duplicator. The sites pitching the software, which buyers complained didn't do what it claimed to do, were advertised in the Warcraft world by characters who would spam in-game chat rooms.
Then in July, grievances about undelivered game systems began rolling into the IC3 with more frequency. Just last month, the group of sites attracted 215 complaints.
Irate buyers congregated on Internet message boards, attempting to have the sites shut down and calling for legal action. "I was tricked," a user who went by the name hatesbeingrippedoff wrote on a forum on 419Legal.org. "This is a total fraud and I hope we can get a class action lawsuit." Many said they were concerned about identity theft and canceled their credit cards. "Although it's just $35, that doesn't mean he's not going to use all the credit card information he's acquired so far for his dirty little self," wrote a user posting under the name NessaLee.
Although the federal agencies aren't saying who they think is behind the offers, the websites appear to be based in Pensacola, Fla., and Atlanta, according to investigations by The Times, Internet message boards and an anonymous sleuth. Accounts registered with fake names and periodic expirations of domain names have helped conceal the sites' proprietorship.
One unlikely target of citizen investigators: a Catholic-goods reseller who says he has nothing to do with the case. Amateur sleuths discovered that, on its FAQs page, the Online Catholic Store lists the same phone number that's on the refurbished console sites (it lists a different number on its contact page). The number sends callers to a voice-mail box for a company calling itself Consoles for Less.
Ken Fabrick, owner of the Catholic-goods website, said he had previously registered the toll-free number with Internet calling service Vonage but no longer owned it. He said he had forgotten to update his site's FAQs page with the current phone number. When asked about the game console websites, he said, "We're not associated with them at all."
A Vonage spokesman said he couldn't disclose information about who currently owned the account because of federal privacy laws but said, "It's ours, and it's active."
Butterworth says the IC3 is assisting authorities with an investigation, and Vonage says it will fully cooperate with a government subpoena if one is filed.
-- Mark Milian
Sites that users have accused of not delivering game consoles and World of Warcraft software, according to the IC3: